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‘Kenya One’ was pure magic between posts

Friday October 1 2010

File |  NATION Legendary goalkeeper Mahmoud Abbas during his playing days. The celebrated player raised the bar of Kenyan football to a height that will be hard to reach.

File | NATION Legendary goalkeeper Mahmoud Abbas during his playing days. The celebrated player raised the bar of Kenyan football to a height that will be hard to reach. 

By Roy Gachuhi [email protected]

"It was my mistake,” Mahmoud Abbas candidly admits to the error that cost Harambee Stars a penalty.

Fifa had recently enacted a rule meant to clamp down on goalkeepers who wasted time when their teams were leading. This rule followed the 1982 World Cup, which Italy won in part because Dino Zoff, their goalkeeper and captain, specialised in running out the clock during the dying minutes of their victorious matches.

“The score was 2-1 for us against Zimbabwe. I picked up the ball and bounced it twice on the ground instead of once. The referee, Said Ali from Zanzibar, leniently let it pass.

But when I did it again, he immediately awarded an indirect free kick against us. It was about six yards from the goal line. Joel Shambo’s shot was definitely goal bound but JJ (Masiga) openly and deliberately stopped it with his hands.” Penalty!

“I told JJ, ‘Thanks, and don’t worry. I’ll deal with it.’ Dave Mwanza stepped forward to take the penalty for Zimbabwe. I stood a foot or so in front of him as he carefully placed the ball on the spot. As he lifted his head, I looked into his eyes. I saw him look to his right and there and then, I knew in what direction he would shoot. His eyes said what his mind had decided. I took my place on the goal line. The shot came and I flung myself to my left.” Saved!

Final score: Kenya....2 Zimbabwe....1.

This is how Abbas, by wide acclamation Kenya’s best goalkeeper ever, remembers the proceedings of the 1982 Cecafa East and Central Africa Senior Challenge Cup which Harambee Stars won after an epic duel with Uganda at Kampala’s Nakivubo Stadium. In that final, decided on a shoot-out, he stopped two penalties.

Next Wednesday, the Cranes will be in town to contest a place in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations with Kenya, at a time when, as always, the hearts of millions of Kenya fans overflow with love for their national team. But poor things. All they ever get in return is heartbreak.

All they know is that Abbas’ 55-year-old safe pair of hands will, of course, be unavailable when the Cranes and the Stars face off. What, however, endures is the memory.

For one generation of Kenya fans, he and his colleagues remain the walking repository of an intense nostalgia for the era of pure magic on the pitch when even mistakes could only serve to glorify their prowess.

In Hopes and Dreams, a book commemorating the first Fifa World Cup in Africa written by an international team of writers and whose forward is penned by CAF President Issa Hayatou, Abbas features alongside another Kenyan legend, Joe Kadenge.

“He is undoubtedly one of those players who have influenced a whole generation of African stars,” his citation says. “He will be remembered for his ability to save penalties. His place in African football folklore (is) assured. He is a footballing legend and will always be one of the best African goalkeepers ever.”

But it was opponents who provided more earthy and colourful descriptions. Tanzanian football commentators labelled him “golikipa mchawi” (“the goalkeeping wizard”). And in 1983 his club, AFC Leopards, won the national league without Abbas conceding a single goal.

Extraordinary exploits

A conversation this reporter had then with Peter Otieno Bassanga, defender for Leopards’ arch-rivals Gor Mahia and Abbas’ Harambee Stars team mate, inexorably shifted to the extraordinary exploits of the goalkeeper.

In graphic terms, Bassanga said: “Huyu jamaa hujaa goli nzima (This guy fills up the entire goal mouth).”

To the teeming multitudes of Kenya fans, especially those with loyalties to AFC Leopards, he was simply “Kenya One”.

It is a tribute to his special gifts that he dominated the space between the posts for more than 10 years at a time when Kenya didn’t have a shortage of goalkeeping talent.

Men like Mohammed Magogo, the Kenya captain that he dethroned, Dan Odhiambo, Gor Mahia’s number one, and Washington Muhanji, the soldier from Lanet’s Scarlet, were all great goalkeepers and all were called for national duty. But Abbas shut them out and reigned to the end, forever banishing their status to the footnotes of Harambee Stars history.

There are many qualities he brought to the game but some stand out. He had an unusual dedication to training and fitness and worked with weights when many of his colleagues were content with field training only.

He remembers: “I think only three of us worked with weights consistently – Martin Ochieng Oswayo, Wilberforce Mulamba and myself.”

The weights must have worked wonders for his hands. He preferred to throw the ball to his team mates after making a save rather than kicking it. His throws comfortably passed the half way line and were remarkably accurate.

And he had a big mouth. You could hear him shouting his team mates’ names from the stands, especially during the anxious moments that go with constructing an anti-free kick defensive wall.

He had a lucky beginning in life because from an early age, he knew what he wanted to do with himself.

“I wanted to be a goalkeeper,” he says emphatically. And he had a powerful role model – Mahmoud Mohammed, the Harambee Stars goalkeeper of the early and mid 70s who, like him, was a native of Mombasa.

“You never watched him,” he says with an expression of wonderment that must have been the same one he wore when he first saw his idol. “If you did, you would decide that that was Kenya’s greatest goalkeeper.

“He was tall and strong. He was disciplined and took his training very seriously. I was a schoolboy when I first saw him train and there and then I decided that one day I would be like him. If he was here and you asked him who Kenya’s best goalkeeper was, he would say me, Mahmoud Abbas. But I am telling you, as far as I am concerned, the best goalkeeper ever was Mahmoud Mohammed.”

Abbas was part of the ground breaking Khamis Secondary School team that became the first Coast school to win the national schools’ football title in 1971.

“We defeated Homa Bay Secondary,” he remembers and breaks into a chuckle when adding: “One of their players was Paul Oduwo ‘Cobra,’ rough as usual.”

The big Oduwo, now deceased, would later play for Harambee Stars and captain Gor Mahia to the final of the 1979 Africa Cup Winners Cup. He was an industrious right full back with a very strong presence in the team. And yes, he went for legs as well as balls.

“He started early,” Abbas laughs.

A permanent fixture for the national team Abbas was but unknown to many Kenyans is the two times he quit football altogether in fury and only changed his mind after great persuasion. The first incident was in 1978.

“My Harambee Stars camp room mate and great friend, Ellie Adero asked me: ‘Mahmoud, how much are you earning in Mombasa?’ I told him Sh5,000. Adero said: ‘Come to Nairobi. We shall give you three times that much.’”

Abbas couldn’t believe his ears. At that time Adero was captain of Kenya Breweries Football Club and, of course, an employee of the company.

Unknown to Abbas, he had been discussed because Breweries were very keen to break the Gor Mahia/AFC Leopards stranglehold on Kenya football. He did not think twice in accepting Adero’s offer.

“But in doing so, I made a terrible mistake,” he says. “I didn’t inform my club, Mwenge, that I was leaving them. I just left. In the meantime, Mohammed Magogo, the Breweries goalkeeper, absconded and went to play in Abu Dhabi. Breweries management was furious. My discussions with Adero and other club officials were taking place at this time. It became a prolonged issue. All this time, Mwenge followed the whole episode without saying anything. Finally, bosses at Breweries decided that I was likely to follow in Magogo’s footsteps and take flight to the Middle East. They refused to sign me.

“All of a sudden, I found myself club-less. One day, I approached Mwenge officials and pleaded with them to take me back. They said nothing. The following day, the club released a statement to the media saying that it does not deal with rolling stones which gather no moss. They called me a rolling stone! When I read that statement, I was utterly devastated.”

Nursing feelings of hurt and rejection, the 22 year-old goalkeeper sunk into a depression. He decided to quit football altogether. He only changed his mind after strong entreaties from his father.

“My father’s request is an order,” he says. “Despite how I felt, how could I turn him down?” He signed for AFC Leopards, for whom he played until he retired.

Had two pairs of gloves

But even at Leopards, he had again quit before rescinding his decision. This came in 1980 following Leopards’ defeat during the all-Kenya final of the East and Central Africa Club championship in Malawi. Up till the final, Abbas had conceded no goal. But when it mattered most, Gor Mahia put three past him for a 3-2 victory. Leopards’ supporters turned on him.

“I had two pairs of gloves,” he says. “And I lent my friend Dan Odhiambo one pair because he didn’t have any himself. Gor Mahia supporters would later say I bewitched him with charms I am supposed to have put in those gloves.

“Imagine helping your friend and then being accused of bewitching him! For Leopards’ fans it was proof that I had dalliances with our arch-rivals. They said I was paid to let in goals. How else, they confidently argued, could I shut out everybody in the region except Gor?

“Leopards fans had turned against me. Gor Mahia fans disliked me for obvious reasons. I felt that nobody wanted me. For all my devotion and sincere contributions to football, I was everybody’s enemy. I decided to quit. I went back to Mombasa and promised myself that I would never play football again. But a delegation of Leopards’ officials eventually made me change my mind.”

He eventually retired for good in 1990.

Given the mind-boggling sums earned by today’s footballers, does he sometimes feel that he happened on the scene prematurely?

With a wistful twinkle in his eyes, he reflexively offers: “I cannot blame God. He alone knows what is best for me.” It is an obviously “religiously-correct” answer in deference to his Maker. But there is still too much football in his system. So I persist.

“Don’t you, Abbas, wish you were playing today?”

“Many times I wish I could turn the clock back!” he almost explodes. “I could have played anywhere in the world.”

Ah, that answer is closer to the truth. But God is not done with him yet. Ahmed Mahoud is growing up. He is 15 years old. His father is sure that he has all the qualities of a goalkeeping superstar. “His height,” says Abbas, “is good. And so are his reflexes and his attitude.”

Kenyans only need to give him time and “Insha Allah” (“God willing”), the long lost era of penalty saving may yet return.

(Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group sports reporter, is founder, East Africa School of Journalism. These abridged stories for the Saturday Nation are an excerpt from a book he is finishing on the legends of Kenya’s football)